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Cambodian-American gets Star Trek treatment

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The cast and crew of Kevin Ung’s (left) short film Refrigerate After Opening. Photo supplied

Cambodian-American gets Star Trek treatment

Kevin Ung, a Cambodian-American whose family escaped genocide during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, was recently selected from thousands of applicants to participate in the Television Academy Foundation’s inaugural 2020 Star Trek Command Training Programme, a course intended to give hands-on filmmaking experience to minorities.

It brings Kevin one step closer to fulfilling his dreams of becoming a prominent filmmaker and opening a film school in Cambodia.

The University of Southern California graduate is one of two inaugural students for the programme, which is a joint venture between The Television Academy Foundation and CBS Television Studios aimed at promoting core values on inclusion and diversity.

Executive producer of two Star Trek movies and founder of the production company Secret Hideout, Alex Kurtzman says the programme will recognise and encourage all communities of colour.

The well-known filmmaker who also produced Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Mummy believes that the best films are ones made by filmmakers who connect personally to the stories they’re telling. “I’m thrilled to have such a stellar trainee in Kevin, Kurtzman says.

I’d love to see Kevin become the writer and director he aspires to be, and I’d like him to tell stories that reach a global audience that come from a personal place.”

Born in California, Kevin counts himself lucky to be of Cambodian descent. He says the Kingdom’s beautiful and rich culture makes him unique in the US.

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Kevin Ung fell in love with films after receiving an unlimited movie pass from Blockbuster in high school. Photo supplied

His mother is from Battambang province and his father is from Kampong Cham province. After escaping genocide in Cambodia and fleeing to refugee camps around Southeast Asia, they found their way to the US and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

Kevin tells The Post: “Many Americans don’t know about Cambodian culture or the horrific genocide that happened in Cambodia. They don’t know the hardships and racism that Cambodian refugees and their families still face in America.”

As they started a new chapter of their lives in the US, Kevin’s parents spent most of their time at work, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. The whole family would come together at night and on weekends and enjoy home-cooked meals.

“It wasn’t easy for them because they came here with nothing and were unfamiliar with the language and culture. But they were resilient and were able to build a life here,” Kevin says.

Since he was a child, Kevin has had a voracious appetite for stories told in all forms. His passion for filmmaking really took off after he and his brother received an unlimited Blockbuster movie pass one summer during high school.

“We just watched everything we could get our hands on, from arthouse films to blockbusters. That summer solidified my love of film,” he says.

In the industry, Kevin’s biggest role model is Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee, who pursued his dreams against his parents’ wishes and became one of the world’s most successful directors.

Kevin says he can relate to Lee.

“I remember my father telling me that ‘people like us can’t work in Hollywood because of the way we look’. That stuck with me my whole life and I grew up thinking that perhaps he was right since I never saw anyone like us on TV, Kevin said on the Television Academy’s website.

The fact that I’m now in a position that will hopefully lead to a career in TV means that my father will be proved wrong in the best possible way.”

Kevin was fortunate to hone his skills in Hong Kong for several years, where he developed as an artist and made several films.

He’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in Film and Television Production. He applied for the Star Trek Command Training Programme while hunting for ways to get more industry experience.

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Kevin (left) received valuable advice from Alex Kurtzman​ (right), the executive producer of two Star Trek movies. Photo supplied, AFP

The programme is advertised as a deep dive into the complete process of making a TV show.

“I feel so grateful knowing that the same people who vote for the Emmys selected me to further develop my career in television. When I was younger, I saw few positive portrayals of Asians on TV and I never saw a single Cambodian.

“It’s been amazing to be part of the Star Trek Command Training Programme and I’ve been able to learn a tremendous amount from talented artists from all the Star Trek shows, from showrunners to directors, sound designers, writers and editors.”

The two-month internship programme should have taken place in-person, but Covid-19 forced it online. Productions were stalled and meetings were held virtually with creative professionals who work on Star Trek.

Kurtzman says: “The challenges are obvious, in that it’s harder to ‘immerse’ our trainees in the filmmaking world without receiving on-set experience.

“That said, because everyone’s working from home and doing all meetings on Zoom, it provided Kevin with more one-on-one experience with our casts and crews, and I’d even say it made more people available to him for lengthier amounts of time.”

Kevin says he considers it a blessing in disguise because he is able to speak directly to talented professionals in his desired field.

“The Star Trek fellowship means that I will finally be able to weave my unique experiences into the fabric of American storytelling,” he says.

Kevin has already directed three short films – Refrigerate After Opening, a Charlie Kaufman-meets-Pixar film about a man who catches a break in life after finding a magic refrigerator; An Eye, which deals with a man’s decision to become a terrorist after his family is killed in a bombing and Hometown, an exploration of small-town friendship in the US, and youthful confusion.

“I plan to put Refrigerate After Opening in festivals, so look out for that in the coming year. I was also the director of photography for a short film this year called 33, which was written and directed by my friend Subhro Das, about a white supremacist who abducts an interracial couple.

“That apart, I finished a feature script recently, tentatively entitled Cor, which is about a man and a robot.”

While studying for his master’s programme, Kevin plans to make more films. Afterwards, he wants to write and direct TV and film, especially in the Kingdom.

“It would be amazing if I could be involved in creating the Star Trek universe! I would also love the opportunity to direct in Cambodia.

“My parents’ experiences and my Cambodian culture has always been a part of me. My culture innately shapes how I approach things and being Cambodian, I am aware that I have the opportunity and privilege of featuring more Cambodians in Hollywood,” he says.

Kurtzman adds: “The rules are changing every day, and soon they’re going to be written and rewritten by people like Kevin.

“I think the experiences of Kevin’s family have made him uniquely thoughtful about the impact of tyranny on artists and their right to free speech. Painful as that has been for him, it’ll make him a great filmmaker, and an even better leader.”

For Kevin, becoming a prominent filmmaker will be an opportunity to enable others like him to do the same.

“My dream would be to open a film school in Cambodia to help nurture the next generation of Cambodian filmmakers.

“I believe there is still lots of room for the industry to grow, but in order to do so, there need to be more filmmakers that truly understand the film craft. Having a proper film school would be a great foundation for the growth of the industry.

“My hope is that the future of film and TV will truly be inclusive, both on and off-screen. I also hope there will be more Cambodians on the world stage for TV and film,” he says.

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